TOKYO — Defense and foreign ministers from the United States and Japan are meeting Tuesday to discuss their shared worry over China’s growing territorial ambitions in the East and South China seas as the Biden administration tries to reassure key regional allies.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken held separate talks with their Japanese counterparts, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, ahead of their so-called “two plus two” security talks on Tuesday. The U.S. ministers arrived in Tokyo late Monday.
President Joe Biden’s decision to send key ministers to Japan as their first overseas visit — rather than hosting Japanese officials in Washington — means a lot for Japan, which considers its alliance with the United States the cornerstone of its diplomatic and security policies.
Blinken, in his opening remarks, said “it is no accident that we chose Japan for the first Cabinet level overseas travel” of the Biden administration, and that he and Austin are “here to reaffirm our commitment to the alliance and to build on it.”
He said the United States and its allies are working on together on climate change, cyber security and health security “in support of our shared values.”
“We believe in democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” but they are under threat in the region, “whether it’s Burma or China,” Blinken said. He said the United States will work with its allies to help achieve “a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
Motegi said he hoped to discuss China’s growing activity in the East and South China seas and how the allies can bolster their deterrence and response capability in reply.
Japan is in a delicate diplomatic situation because its economy, like those of other countries in the region, heavily depends on China.
But Tokyo considers China’s escalating maritime activity in the region a security threat. Beijing has built militarized manmade islands in the South China Sea and is pressing its claim to virtually all of the sea’s key fisheries and waterways. Japan is concerned about China’s claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea and its increased activity in the disputed area.
China has denied it is expansionist and said it is only defending its territorial rights.
On the Biden administration’s first Cabinet-level trip abroad, Blinken and Austin were expected to discuss the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, as well as the nuclear threat posed by North Korea and the situation in Myanmar after its military coup.
Blinken also said that the United States and Japan are expected to reaffirm the importance of their three-way partnership with South Korea and may touch on the strained relations between Tokyo and Seoul over wartime compensation issues.
Later Tuesday, the officials will talk with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is expected to visit Washington sometime in the first half of April to meet with Biden in person — becoming the first foreign leader to do so since Biden became president in January.
In a move meant to signal his intention for the United States to more strongly engage with the Asia-Pacific region, Biden on Friday held a first virtual summit of the leaders from Australia, Japan, India and the United States known as the “Quad” and emphasized Washington’s commitment to the region.
Blinken and Austin on Wednesday will head to South Korea, another key regional ally. North Korea and its nuclear ambitions will be a focus of those talks.
Blinken will meet senior Chinese officials in Anchorage, Alaska, on their way back to Washington. Austin will go from Seoul to New Delhi for meetings with Indian leaders.